On October 29, 1949 a most extraordinary man died in Paris: G. Gurdjieff, mourned by friends and students around the world. He died as his first book was being published in four countries—a symbol, so to say, of the anonymity he kept and wanted toward the greater public, though his radius of influence reached to Tibet, across Europe and to America. Behind him he left the world a fourfold legacy:
1. His writings
2. His music
3. His movements and sacred dances
4. A well-prepared tradition through his older students
To me, as the only living German-speaking disciple and translator of his writings into German, falls the task to point to Gurdjieff (even if very inadequately) for all my brothers who speak the same language.
Gurdjieff was born in 1872 in the region of Mt. Ararat, from ancient times a crossroads, a place where many peoples and cultures converged. His forefathers were Greeks from Caesarea and their history goes back way beyond Christ’s time. He grew up in a patriarchal family under what could be called “biblical” life circumstances. In the second series of his writings, Meetings with Remarkable Men, he describes his father, an original thinker and one of the last in the tradition of bards; and also his first teacher, Dean Borsh of Kars Military Cathedral, who prepared his talented student for the profession of a priest and a physician at the same time—that is, in order to heal the whole man.
Gurdjieff showed great interest in all of the sciences and was also very skillful with his hands, trying himself at many trades. Some experiences in his youth in the strange Caucasian surroundings, for which he could find no explanation in the sciences, brought him early to contemplate the sense of life and to doubt the accepted explanations. This led him, while still young, to go in search of real knowledge, true for all times and all men. After studying various medieval ruins and everything in old Armenian literature, he came to the conclusion that men of former times had indeed possessed a true knowledge which had since been lost.
Together with some young friends he set out to search for bits and traces of this ancient knowledge. They called themselves ‘seekers of the truth’ and traveled to isolated monasteries where age-old traditions had been kept alive, met dervishes, holy men and members of different religious brotherhoods. They were joined later by people with greater material means from various fields of study: an archeologist, an engineer, a physician, a philologist, etc. Gurdjieff erected a memorial to some of them in the second series of his writings.
They traveled in Persia, Turkestan, Tibet, India, the Gobi Desert and Egypt. There were rumors that Gurdjieff had played a leading role in the Anglo-Tibetan War. Occasionally he reappeared at home and disappeared again, in between carrying on various commercial businesses to earn his living.
His traces become clear for us only around 1912. At that time he was 40 years of age, living in St. Petersburg and surrounded by students attracted by his exceptional originality and genuineness. They all sensed something in him which one of my children expressed: “He looks different and is different from all other people.”
At that time the writer and mathematician P. D. Ouspensky met him. Ouspensky had been a leader in the exploration of the fourth dimension in the psychological- philosophical field. Just returned from India, he found in Gurdjieff all and everything that he himself had looked for in vain throughout the East. In his book, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (published in
German by Der Palme, Innsbruck), Ouspensky describes how he met Gurdjieff and records many of their exchanges. Or, to be more precise, Gurdjieffs substantial answers to the probing questions of Ouspensky and other students.
Gurdjieff had knowledge in many fields and brought light into the darkest corners. Foremost, he had a new conception of the sense and aim of human existence and of what evolution is in reality. He reached beyond all university knowledge and also of what is usually called religion. He could help where the usual physicians and theologians failed. But he didn’t give lectures. He didn’t push his knowledge on to anyone. On the contrary, it was difficult to get it out of him. One had to be an earnest seeker, ready for anything, one who wanted more than just words. With him everything was connected, the great distance came near and became as clear as one’s own hand. The near detail became enlarged a million times and therefore recognizable. All of the usual ‘goods’ of modern man’s thinking and belief fluttered like moths near light when they fell into Gurdjieffs view. By that he made you sense—in his language taste—what is really “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
At that time he was ready to start a large institute, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where the physical, emotional and thinking parts of man were to be educated equally, and where attention and will for the recognition and direction of oneself would be formed. He had already ordered many scientific apparatuses from Germany when political happenings destroyed it all. The first European war had begun.
As unbelievable as it may sound, even such an enormous event did not deter Gurdjieff from his intentions. The planned institute became a wandering institute, partly with the same, partly with different people. During that time they experienced all the difficulties of the millions of homeless of this unfortunate twentieth century. Gurdjieff and his students had to struggle for their daily bread, but not only in the sense this is usually understood. They also worked. Work for him and his students meant work on oneself: work for the recognition of oneself and for self-perfection. As Gurdjieff used to say, “The greater the difficulties, the greater the possibilities for productive work, provided that one works consciously.”
For a while it seemed the Institute had found a place in the Caucasus, then in Tiflis, but the political events there also made it impossible. It was due to Gurdjieffs tact, knowledge of man, and very unusual general perspective, that the different warring parties left him and his group undisturbed. It came about, for example, that the White and the Red armies found him impartial enough so that both gave him permission to carry weapons.
The wandering institute finally reached Constantinople, after immense difficulties. Alfons Paquet, the Frankfurt writer, met Gurdjieff there in 1921, the day before his return to Germany, and saw a performance of the sacred dances. It is astonishing how much he gathered on this one evening about the universality and significance of Gurdjieff s teaching.1 After another attempt failed to open his institute at Hellerau, and Gurdjieff s refusal to do it in London, he finally succeeded in 1922. It found a permanent home in the historic Chateau de Prieure in Avon-Fountainebleau.
There were students from all over the world, but mainly Russians and English. A large house, gardens and woods gave ample opportunity for practical work. They built, farmed, studied, wove, painted and did movements and sacred dances far into the night. These were practiced in the ‘Study House’ built exactly for that purpose from a converted zeppelin hangar. They also did psychological exercises there, and Gurdjieff answered questions. A performance in the theater of the Champs Elysees in 1923 let the world see what Gurdjieff and his circle had accomplished. In the next years he went with forty pupils to America and gave performances to large audiences in Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as in Boston, Chicago and other cities. These performances of temple dances and psychological phenomena aroused very great interest. At that time he wanted to open branches of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in America and various other countries.
Again fate interrupted his plans and again the outer form of his passing the teaching on to others had to be changed. Soon after his return to France, Gurdjieff suffered a very serious automobile accident, which nearly ended his life. Fighting with the greatest inner effort to regain his consciousness, he realized how very much more he had to accomplish and how very little time he had for it. At that time he decided to write. It was his own decision, a task dictated by himself; his voluntary accepted cross. He closed the Institute, sent his pupils home, secluded himself from everything and started to write.
The rhythm chosen by him for his day was always the same. All possible strength and time was devoted to his writing. He did not change this no matter what the outer circumstances were, writing even while on trains and boats. Usually he sat in the Cafe de la Paix in Paris or in a small cafe in Fountainebleau, or when he visited New York he sat and wrote at Childs Restaurant. The constant noise of people around him and the clatter of dishes did not reach his ear. Yes, even visitors (of which there were many), had to wait until he turned toward them, and that could be one, two or three hours. Some people experienced, in the presence of this strange meteor, the striking contrast between the noisy, hasty deceptive outer world, and the quiet surety and dense inner collectedness of him who sat there and wrote.
Rather at the beginning of my work with him, while I was still amazed that Gurdjieff did not look for anything which constitutes the pleasures and strivings of all other men, he placed himself next to me one day (when he was obviously tired), after he returned from the cafe. We were on the terrace with the beautiful view of the garden at the Prieure, where I was working on the translation of the first series of his writings.
Why don’t you also work here, with the view of the roses, the goldfish pond and the trimmed rows of Sycamores, in such good air?
I always work in cafes, dance halls, and similar places where I see people, how they are; where I see those most drunk, most abnormal. Seeing them I can produce the impulse of love in me, and from that I write my books.
A kind of recreation for him was cooking. He called himself ‘Dr. Culinary,’ and could prepare the most varied dishes of all the Asiatic tribes, as they have come down through the centuries. Also, he prepared many of his own combinations, which not only vivified our taste (which has been more and more lost) but also led us to a certain awareness of the process of digestion in us.
Eight or nine years he devoted to writing, and he produced three series’ of books of exceptional richness, originality and multiplicity of meaning. The second series, a book of profound psychological meaning, is at the same time a travel book of incomparable beauty, and flowed as easily as his music, of which there are several hundred pieces. The chief effort for Gurdjieff, however, was the first series of his writings entitled An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, or Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.
Some chapters of the first series, especially the chapter ‘The Arousing of Thought,’ called at first ‘Warning,’ he wrote and rewrote as many as twelve times. What an effort, until all the themes of his work, which doesn’t leave out any question, were touched upon and woven together in this introduction. By the changes he made it was obvious he wanted to ‘bury the bone deeper,’ which meant not to give it in an easy way. This was absolutely necessary to reach the aim he had set for himself. Nobody can get anything for nothing, and even the best that can be given to us can only become our own if we work for it ourselves. In any case, he did not wish to give the kind of ‘new knowledge,’ which can easily be put into words. Rather, he wanted to change, open, develop something in the essence of man, which could lead to the creation of his own inner world, and to understanding. He who recognized a person with a single look knew that this process entails a tremendous undertaking, and the aim of the first series is “to destroy mercilessly all of the centuries-old conceptions and images which are rooted in us, about everything existing in the world,” so that space can be created to be ready to accept something new and real.
With that I come to the chief aim of Gurdjieff s writings and especially of his first series: in place of a personal teacher, it gives everything we need in this twentieth century to acquire a truthful and unchangeable inner world. This can happen only when we slowly learn that our cooperation, our amazement, comparing, confrontation, learning to ask and learning to wait for an answer, is as equally necessary as the help of the book. Thanks to our false education, our innate forces of thinking, feeling, and sensing are totally mechanized and lopsided, especially if we are so-called ‘educated’ people. The kernel in us, the germ which longs for development and continuity, lies there suffocated and choked between the false activities of our many supposed Ts.’
During the eight years of writing, Gurdjieff asked daily before or after a meal, in a small circle or for many guests, that a particular chapter be read aloud in one or another language. He then watched the listeners and recognized the degree of perfection of what he had written anew, as well as the exactness of the translation. He often chose a chapter corresponding to the type of person, or more likely the chapter about the nation of those present. New guests were amazed that he considered a small word or the flow of a sentence so very important, but the translators knew Gurdjieff already as ‘the teacher of exactness.’ For us the translation wasn’t done just for the sake of translation, but was our schooling, which freed us from our subjective conceptions and views, and thanks to the creation of a new exact language, brought us to an understanding, which we could not even have imagined at the beginning.
There slowly developed in us the capacity to “make oneself empty,” to “learn to listen.” Only when there is space can something new enter, and this is a much more difficult process than most people want to believe: the freeing of the purely subjective thinking and picturing kaleidoscope, which we automatically received, and the acquisition of a consciously functioning, ever true, objective presence in its place. All sorts of anecdotes illustrate this process, and if they could ever be collected they would illuminate Gurdjieff s teachings in an extraordinarily humorous way.
From the readings around Gurdjieff there slowly grew groups in the various capitals of the world, whereby the listeners (one could never read it oneself, only listen) constated the astonishing fact that this first series, this cosmic fairy tale, is truer than all fairy tales and has certainly a super-terrestrial source of knowledge. It brought us the absolutely necessary help in the recognition of ourselves and of all things in this world. When we had a question for which we could not find an answer, or a difficulty we could not accept or overcome, this book brought us the necessary help. And in the course of years, one could notice that our outer man, who takes himself to be so important, whose existence is filled with thousands of little daily excitements and enthusiasms, usually became quieter and more serious; and our inner man, to which almost no one can break through in this modern time, made its appearance; in the beginning, at first, only sometimes and later more often. One did not have to talk about it, but one sensed that this book had become real nourishment and an inner measuring stick for us all. Self- satisfaction could not reign if one realized how long it had taken to understand one or another thing (or better said, was on the way to understand) or when one noticed that two hours of listening were already too much for our ‘thinking,’ based only on fleeting observation, and our always fluttering or lame feeling.
Each page, each chapter in Gurdjieff s writings leads the listener to recognize his own inadequacy, his own disunity, his own nothingness. At the same time it strengthens his desire for something stable, sure, lasting, and enlarges his possibilities to question. It furthers his ability to search and his possibilities to ponder, and awakens in him forces which never prove him right, but give him the taste of what a man could and should be.
In the eight years in which Gurdjieff wrote the various series, he often talked of their publication. Yes, he even once drove especially to Leipzig to show me the place where he said his writings should be printed. At that time, in the late 20’s and early 30’s, I understood the “having to be printed” mainly in the sense that it had to be printed in me; namely, to awaken in me that one who had been the desire of my childhood, when I pondered what it could possibly mean to “love your neighbor like yourself.” Just when, after looking amongst all the religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic directions known to me, and seeing clearly the hopelessness of every attempt, I listened for the first time to a chapter from An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. I thank this for my first blessed, sleepless night.
In the beginning of 1949, during Gurdjieff s last visit to New York, he said in a circle of some of his older students that the time had come for his writings to be published, and that it should happen that same year. He decided that the first series (the most difficult one) had, by all means, to come out first and in pocket format so that everybody could carry it with him in his pocket. At the same time he gave permission to publish the last work of Ouspensky (who was highly esteemed for his earlier books and well known in England and America): In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching is a forerunner as well as the premier commentary on Gurdjieff s ideas.
In Germany in 1929, I read for the first time in the presence of Gurdjieff a few chapters of Beelzebub’s Tales in my German translation. It was in the house of Alfons Paquet in Frankfurt. Paquet and I invited friends to this reading. According to Gurdjieff s directions there needed to be at least seven family fathers among them. But even for those Germans, proud of their receptiveness, three hours of uninterrupted reading were too much. Later one of my friends wanted to disappoint me, saying that only one word had stuck in his memory from this long reading: Kundabuffer. This was enough for me: Kundabuffer in place of the genuine man, illusion in place of truth. This, in addition to the first and single explanation, is what is called in the language of the church ‘hereditary sin.’ Against his wish my friend had become wet when it rained.
In Berlin Mr. Gurdjieff asked me to read the chapter “The Fruits of Former Civilizations and the Blossoms of the Contemporary.” It seemed to me that some of those present, when they heard about the inventions of the Germans, almost sweat blood. In studying mass psychosis, the horror which shows most clearly the degeneration of mankind, Gurdjieff takes all nations under his magnifying glass. None is left out of this; all went astray.
Meanwhile, fate has been very unkind to the Germans and robbed them of their most favorite illusions, which some of them like more than their own life. When I lived again in Germany for a few years in the middle of the 30’s, it pained me to recognize that the innate urge within every man for a guide or teacher worked there in a totally false direction. Even those who had not fallen prey to the general tendencies grappled in the dark, and could only passively endure the general mass psychosis.
Gurdjieff lived at that time in Paris, unknown and always surrounded by a group of people working on themselves. He suffered the same outer difficulties as all men, but inwardly he rose above it. Gurdjieff used this greatest of all mass psychoses to make a final examination of the chief illness of mankind, which man himself causes by creating abnormal outer life circumstances, a factor not derived from Nature or God.
It seems to me that the German people hunger, perhaps more than any other, to find in the writings of Gurdjieff, and in the conversations recorded by Ouspensky, the laws according to which these terrible last decades, unworthy of man, passed. Who was guilty? The Emperor, or Hitler, England, Russia, or America? All theories and subjective explanations collapse thanks to Gurdjieff. Much needless talk, many needless books simply have to cease. And what is death? What is set free by it? What is its sense? What can take the place of war and outer force? Where does war start and where is it ever present? In each of us and in our relationships with others. Where can it stop? Only in us and in our relationships with one another. Has an individual a choice? Can we learn to choose?
Therefore this book has to reach the public. This book, written from a real knowledge; a justice and love whose dimensions we cannot grasp.
Frankfurt am Main, Praunheim Alte Muhe 2
I would like to advise those who seriously wish to study Gurdjieff s writings to arrange regular evening readings, and to add nothing—with no discussions.
1 See Alfons Paquet, Delphische Wanderung, p. 218